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Beauty is Easy on the Brain

"Easy on the mind" rather than "easy on the eyes" may be a better way to describe something that’s beautiful, according to a new study.

Researchers found objects and animals that conform to a prototype rather than deviate from it are easier for the brain to process and, therefore, are perceived as more pleasing to the eye.

"What you like is a function of what your mind has been trained on," says researcher Piotr Winkielman of the University of California, San Diego, in a news release. "A stimulus becomes attractive if it falls into the average of what you've seen and is therefore simple for your brain to process. In our experiments, we show that we can make an arbitrary pattern likeable just by preparing the mind to recognize it quickly."

Researchers say the findings build a phenomenon known as "beauty-in-averageness effect," which was discovered in the late 1800s. The theory holds that prototypical images are rated as more beautiful or appealing than variations of the same thing.

'Beauty' Experiments

To test the theory, researchers had groups of students undergo different experiments. In one experiment, a group of students were presented prototypes of random groupings of dots. Then distortions of the dots in these prototypes were created and presented to the students.

In a second experiment, a group of students rated the attractiveness of random dot patterns and those that conformed to common geometric patterns, like a diamond or square.

The results, published in Psychological Science, showed that the participants categorized patterns quicker and rated them as more attractive when they were closer to their respective prototypes.

A third experiment had students looking at dots also, but this time also examined cheek muscle for smiling action and brow muscle for frowning action.

Researchers also found that the less time it took participants to classify a pattern, the more attractive they found it.

"This parsimonious explanation," says Winkielman, "accounts for cultural differences in beauty -- and historical differences in beauty as well -- because beauty basically depends on what you've been exposed to and what is therefore easy on your mind."

SOURCES: Winkielman, P. Psychological Science, September 2006; vol 17: pp 799-806. News release, University of California, San Diego.

By Jennifer Warner, WebMD, September 29, 2006